21 Blocks On the Rebound

Leigh Evans

Leigh Evans of the Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corporation addressed blight and abandonment to revitalize her Indianapolis, Indiana neighborhood.

March 9, 2015

At the turn of the 20th century, Mapleton-Fall Creek was the jewel of Indianapolis—a neighborhood of spacious Craftsman and Foursquare homes, of thriving business districts, of churches and synagogues—a racially integrated place where German, Jewish and African-American residents lived alongside one another.

Leigh Evans grew up in a very different Mapleton-Fall Creek, one of lost manufacturing jobs, drug dealers and empty lots. Her father, an African-American veteran purchasing his first home, had been steered there in the 1970's, south of the 38th Street dividing line that separated black residents from whites.

Neglected by the city, sidewalks crumbled along with neighborhood pride. "If I sweep in front of my house, the trash is going to blow back in from both directions," residents figured, says Evans. "You just give up."

Evans graduated college, left the neighborhood and earned an MBA. But in 2008, she returned with her young family, drawn by a desire to live near her parents, the charm and spaciousness of the old homes and a vision of what the neighborhood could be.

Three years later, she was appointed chief executive officer of Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corporation, her "dream job," and now is leading a neighborhood turnaround, with a focus on the 21 blocks with the highest vacancy rates.

Watson ParkAbandoned buildings and weed-filled lots have their up-side, according to Evans. "There's land available, which is a rarity in the urban environment. It's a great intersection of challenge and opportunity."

For many years, Mapleton-Fall Creek had seemed on the cusp of a turn-around. Beginning in the late 1990s, the City of Indianapolis had cleared 400 abandoned buildings and built new homes in an area just across the Fall Creek Waterway, the neighborhood's southern boundary.

An ignored space

Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corp. had begun its own project, targeting 35 houses for renovation. Evans, who was then directing a state-wide child welfare agency, bought one of the first ten.

The economic downturn in 2008 put a halt to the building. "Real estate lending crashed," she recalled. "There wasn't any credit being extended."

The homeowners in the neighborhood were mostly seniors, like her parents, she says, who had "dug their heels in," determined to age in place, and a handful of "pioneering spirits" like Leigh.

Around them, renters lived in houses or buildings with no code enforcement. Some squatted. The police shrugged. "You could get whatever you wanted on some corners, there was drug dealing, prostitution, gambling. It was that ignored space."

Shortly after returning to the neighborhood, Evans joined two of the development corporation's committees. Her motivation was partly the well-being of her own children, three boys, then aged 6 to 13. "I wanted them to be able to walk to the park or ride their bike to their grandmother's house without being profiled as passing drugs."

Although building had halted, she says, the planning had not. Determined to forge ahead, in 2008, the development corporation crafted a rebuilding and restoration plan based on ideas gathered from residents during a series of community meetings. It included multi-family housing, retail space and a long inventory of infrastructure improvements to demand from the city.

Re-imagining the "Jewel of Indianapolis"

The planning paid off. In 2009, Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corp. won a $3.5 million grant from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to build 25 houses in the target area. Over the coming years, those dollars would leverage $7 million more for parks, home renovations, trails and other improvements.

And in 2010, the group was selected to help lead a quality-of-life planning process managed by Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) of Indianapolis to improve all aspects of community life. Completed in 2012, the plan included business development, crime and safety, housing, aesthetics, youth engagement and senior advocacy.

"This isn't just about housing," says Evans. People aren't going to flock to neighborhoods that lack desirable businesses, safety, attractive spaces and affordable living, she explains. "If you want to have a sustainable community, it's the full picture."

For example, part of the plan was to renovate old homes to exceed Energy Star standards, "so that people wouldn't have to spend all their money heating a big house," she says. "They could buy food as opposed to electricity."

The Mid-North quality-of-life plan attracted new funding and partners and attention from city officials, says Evans, accelerating progress.

Change happens

At first, much of the progress was invisible, she says—contaminated soil needed to be cleaned, a tax increment financing district created, city officials educated about needed infrastructure improvements, a marketing study completed.

But gradually the visible changes mounted.

In the target area, a former string of vacant lots were reopened as a grassy park with a picnic shelter and walkway, with support from Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Indianapolis Power and Light and some community organizations.

Central AvenueAlong Central Avenue, the target area's commercial strip, the city repaved sidewalks while LISC provided a small grant for facade improvements. A cafe with an exterior untouched in half a century got a fresh paint job and a stylish awning. Four blocks away, another anchor business, the neighborhood's only grocery store, was repainted in lime green with colorful signage and a rain garden planted at the edge of its parking lot.

Last year brought even more changes. A new park with a fitness trail and playground equipment opened in the target area. The city finally completed a paved trail along the Fall Creek Waterway. And the development corporation, using over $1 million in new funding from the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana and a federal Community Development Block Grant, renovated a total of nine homes and repaired 16 more. Hundred-year-old homes were painted, new roofs or downspouts installed, gutters cleaned, and flowers planted.

The changes motivated residents like never before, Evans reports, to turn out to neighborhood meetings and to demand improvements from the city and enforcement from the police. "As people see more getting done, they become more empowered. They start asking for more. It's a domino effect."

And on Oct 1, 2014, at long last, the city approved zoning changes needed to build the $20 million development project planned for the target area, with 150 multi-family units and 20,000 square feet of retail space.

Indianapolis Bike Path"We had acquired one of the first parcels almost 20 years ago," says Evans, "so to get to the point where there was nothing else to do before getting started on this work was very exciting."

In Mapleton Fall-Creek's future, she sees more vacant lots giving way to family homes and businesses, public art along the waterway, a bike path along the boulevard. As spaces become lived- in and cared-for, she sees crime decreasing, and residents safely strolling down the leafy avenues just as they did more than half a century ago.

People & Places spotlights people who lead neighborhood transformation at the local level. How does this story relate to the challenges and successes in your communities? Share your stories.

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